Let me tell you a story:
I decided in 9th grade that Northwestern was the only school I wanted to attend. I wanted to be an actress and someone told me NU was the best undergrad program for acting (that didn’t require an audition). So the stakes for writing that essay were really high.
I put off writing the essay so long that my mother actually had to ground me to my room for three days to get me to write it. It took three days because I was completely blocked. The college essay is so intimidating—they’re going to judge me on this piece of writing alone!—and because it was my first choice school, I had built it up that much more in my mind. Total performance anxiety.
I couldn’t think of any way to begin and, this being the era before word processors were affordable, I wasn’t about to type multiple drafts of this thing, so I had to begin at the beginning. Finally, I decided I had to borrow an opening. I sat at the typewriter and wrote three words: (Get ready; you’re going to laugh.)
“Call me Ishmael.”
Yes, that just happened. But wait. I followed it up with literary gold:
“No, don’t. Well, you can, but I might not answer. My name is Lessa S and I’m the daughter of a contralto and an Irish tenor.”
The rest was some stream of consciousness BS that I don’t even remember. I typed one draft, showed it to no one (because I hadn’t left myself enough time and it was too personal, anyway), sealed it in the envelope and dropped it in the mail.
Now that I’m a college counselor, I am both amused and embarrassed by this story. I have no way of knowing if my essay hurt or helped me. Why it could have helped:
Someone stood up in committee and fought for me, maybe in spite of my essay. I had the equivalent of a 33 on the ACT, I had three APs at a time when most people had zero, I was in the top 10% of my really academically challenging high school class, and I wanted to be an actress. Not the typical academic profile of most of the theatre department. I was also economically diverse: I was raised by a single mother and almost a first generation college student (both parents had some college but neither had graduated at that point). Also, while NU was “impossible to get into” back then as well, at the time that meant they accepted 43% of their applicants, not 11%.
The moral of this story is this: Tell a story and leave your voice/personality in. Don’t be afraid to be a little goofy. But also excel academically and extracurricularly so they can’t deny you outright.
You know, the ones that make straight A’s in all upper-level classes, in “National Honor Society”, top-level band or orchestra, graduate at top of their class. What happens to these kids after high school or college? Do they end up being “average," or go on to be CEOs or high earners?
This depends quite a bit on what college the overachievers go to. Malcolm Gladwell, a writer who deals with math and social science, gave a really fascinating speech at the Zeitgeist Conference in 2013 that shows that being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a small fish in a big pond. He demonstrates that students in the top 5% of their class publish research at about the same rate (X papers per year) no matter whether they go to Harvard (which accepts only 5% of their applicants) or the University of Toronto, which accepts 82% of their applicants. Students at the bottom of the class at Harvard are no more successful than students at the bottom of their class at the University of Toronto.
This means that the smart overachiever types who go to Harvard are more likely than not to consider themselves not-so-smart and not-so-overachievers once they get there, and this change in their perspective follows them for the rest of their lives. These students often get what is call “imposter syndrome,” because they begin to believe that, no matter how much they have accomplished in their lives, there is always someone way smarter and more accomplished than they are. Imposter syndrome is the more dangerous cousin of humility. Obviously, we don’t want everyone to believe they are the smartest person in the room. Those people can be insufferable. Nor do we want people to feel like everything they’ve accomplished is a fluke and sooner or later people will realize they’ve been faking all along. Imposter syndrome can lead to depression and anxiety—like the epidemics of depression and anxiety we currently have.
So that’s one thing that can happen to those smart overachievers. I have yet to meet a smart overachiever type who didn’t have a crisis of self-confidence in college.
Some obviously go on to great things, but as often as not, those CEOs of multimillion dollar companies and governmental leaders did not go to the super-elite colleges. This doesn’t mean they weren’t smart or overachievers. Condeleeza Rice is a classic smart overachiever type who went on to be Secretary of State. She attended the University of Denver and overachieved there, too. ;-)
But if you think in terms of pure numbers, there are something like 40,000 high school valedictorians graduating every year. There are 4,000 seats for freshman in the Ivy League; say 10K seats for freshmen if we count all the highly-selective colleges in the country. This means that only one out of every ten valedictorians will be able to attend a highly-selective college (really less than that because some of those seats go to non-valedictorians). Multimillion dollar corporations only need one CEO a piece, when there are more and more amazing graduates coming into the job market every year. It’s just not numerically possible for every smart overachiever-type to be a famous highly-financially-successful-type person after graduation.
Does this mean they’re average? That depends on what your definitions of “success” and “normal” are. Many people choose to step off the “success” treadmill for one reason or another. They want work/life balance, or to be their own boss, or to do something outside the mainstream. I would argue that this does not mean they’re more or less successful than normal. But I think it’s a good idea for us to stop encouraging our teens to be overachievers and instead support them in finding and following their interests. Being happy and fulfilled is more important than “achieving” as far as I’m concerned.
 Malcolm Gladwell - Zeitgeist Americas 2013
Why do colleges care how well you can write an essay? You can be a great student but one of your biggest weaknesses are essays. Obviously if you hate essays, you aren't going to have a career that deals heavily in essay writing. Why single someone out like this? Can't they have alternative options?
The essay in the college application is only tangentially related to how well you can write an essay. The essay is your opportunity to speak directly to the admissions committee and make your case. Many admissions officers I’ve spoken to have said they like to leave the essay for last, so the student has the last word. (Although some prefer to read the essays first, before they’ve formed an opinion. This is subjective.)
The rest of your application is everyone else’s opinion of who you are and what you are capable of. The transcript and test scores put numbers to your ability, curiosity and drive. Your recommendations give the opinion of your counselor, teacher or other adults. Only your essay answers tell them who you think you are.
Why do they want to know who you are? They’re trying to figure out who you would be on campus. They ask about extracurriculars to find out how you are likely to participate in campus life. They ask for test scores and transcripts to find out whether you are likely to be successful on their campus and come back for sophomore year. They ask for recommendations from your teachers to find out what you will be like in the classroom, and whether the faculty will be glad to have you in their classes. Will you be a good leader, a good roommate and someone they will be proud to have their name attached to after you graduate.
Think of the essay not as a writing assignment, but as a written interview. The interviewer has just asked you “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?” (Common App essay #6)
Instead of feeling put on the spot, you have a chance to think carefully about your answer, and get some feedback from others about what you want to say and how you want to say it before you respond. This never happens in an interview! Embrace this opportunity to tell a story about who you are on the inside, and what is important to you and why. Then you’ll do just fine.
Other ways to show you don’t care: submitting right at the deadline (or even late), accidentally naming the wrong school in your essay (i.e. telling Lehigh you’ve always wanted to go to Penn). It used to be that not listing the school first on your FAFSA signaled lesser interest but the FAFSA reporting form was recently changed so it no longer sends your complete list of schools to each school. Thank goodness.
Whether you decide to stay on the waitlist is up to you. If Penn is your first choice, I wouldn’t bother with the others. Even for students who are waitlisted at their first choice, I counsel them to find the best fit college that accepted them and move on. Sitting on the waitlist just drags out the process even longer (often through the summer) and very few students get off the list anyway. Here are some ideas for what you can do if you decide to stay on the waitlist.
Lessa Scherrer is an college admissions consultant who has worked with college-bound students for many years. She is a member of NACAC and WACAC and also teaches ACT Prep, speed-reading, college study skills and college-level writing.
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